Utah football: Shutout loss to UNLV in '07 opened Utes' eyes
The last time Utah and UNLV played in Las Vegas, Mike Sanford called the Rebels' 27-0 shutout of the Utes a turning point and a defining moment for the program.
It was -- just not the way the UNLV coach envisioned it.
That night in Vegas marked the beginning of a Utah surge that in many ways is still cresting. Just over two years later -- and 27 games later, as it turns out -- the Utes have gone 25-2 since the embarrassing loss, with the only defeats coming against BYU (17-10) near the end of the 2007 season and last month's setback against Oregon (31-24).
As it turned out, it was the Rebels who imploded after that game, losing their final eight contests of the season. The inspired Utes won eight of their last nine and capped the turnaround with a 35-32 win over Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl.
The Utes say that strong finish, in turn, launched last year's BCS-busting run that culminated with the 31-17 demolition of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
In other words, they couldn't have done it without the Rebels.
Why the Utes experienced such a turn of fortune is attributed to many things. For the players, many had never experienced the pain of a shutout. They didn't like how it felt and learned the hard way what happens when preparation and execution is lacking.
"It changed our mentality," linebacker Stevenson Sylvester said. "We knew our capabilities and the positives that could happen if we played to our abilities and in that game we didn't. That just can't happen in order for us to win."
For coach Kyle Whittingham, the loss revealed the importance of making sure his team was mentally ready.
Before that game, Whittingham's teams were gaining a reputation of losing games they shouldn't, with disappointing losses to Air Force at home earlier in 2007, to New Mexico in 2006 and to San Diego State in 2005 at home.
The Utes haven't been caught underestimating an opponent since falling to the Rebels.
"It heightened my awareness as well as to the mind-set of a football team and how critical it is," Whittingham said. "Talent is obviously the first thing you start with but if the mind-set isn't right, that can negate your talent."
Since that game, the Utes have established a reputation for being a team able to overcome adversity, such as injuries and difficult situations -- like last week's CSU game, when the Utes came from behind to win.
Since being blown out by UNLV, the Utes have trailed or were tied at halftime in eight games. They've rallied to win six of those contests.
Prior to and including the UNLV game, the Utes trailed or were tied at halftime in eight games under Whittingham. They lost them all.
"I guess you could say it was a defining moment to this point," Whittingham said of the UNLV loss. "It really was a wake-up call for a lot of the guys on the team that you have to be ready to play and the mind-set has to be right each and every week. That doesn't guarantee victory every week but it does guarantee you'll play good football. There was nothing indicative at practice that week to say we weren't ready to play, but it was obvious when the game started we were flat and it was an eye-opener for a lot of guys."
It's no coincidence, then, that Utah's practices this week have been as intense as in any other week. The Utes have no plans to allow a repeat of 2007.
"We bring that up to drive home the point that if you aren't ready to play, bad things happen so that is something we have certainly discussed many times this week," Whittingham said. "It illustrates if you're not ready to play no matter how good a week of practice you've had or other matters, if you're not ready to play on game day, you aren't going to be winning the football game."
Just ask Mike Sanford.
Utah's record » 25-2
UNLV's record » 7-19
Utah's biggest win since » 31-17 win over Alabama in 2009 Sugar Bowl.
Utah's biggest loss since » 17-10 loss to BYU in 2007.
UNLV's biggest win since » 42-21 win over Arizona State in 2008.
UNLV's biggest loss since » 63-28 loss at Nevada on Oct. 4
Under Kyle Whittingham, the Utes were 0-8 in games when tied or trailing at halftime prior to and including the loss to UNLV. The Utes are 6-2 in such games since then.